When it comes to food pairing, wine seems like the natural choice. Restaurants carefully construct wine lists to match what’s on offer from the kitchen and esteemed sommeliers are awarded for their efforts. Beer, on the other hand, has a much more checkered past. But times have changed, and the Australian beer market is no longer made up of a handful of uninspiring lagers — craft breweries are growing in number and they’re changing the fate of beer.
“It’s been the rule forever that if you’re going to pair anything with food, it should be wine,” says Matt Marinich, venue manager at Stomping Ground Brewing Co. in Melbourne.
“But beer has one main thing that makes it far more versatile — carbonation, which leads to bright aromatics.”
Even though wine has a range of different aromatics, too, says Marinich, the carbonation in beer elevates its esters, phenols and fruit aromas, making it capable of complementing or contrasting with food in a more complex way.
According to Corey Crooks, who owns and runs The Grain Store in Newcastle with partner Kristy, beer has more complexity and variations than people realise. At The Grain Store, 21 taps rotate through roughly 40 beers each week, with styles running the gamut from pale ales to stouts, IPAs, sours and more uncommon types.
“We’re trying to change people’s minds,” says Crooks. “It’s not just about wine and food anymore. There are things you can do with beer that you can’t do with wine. It’s frustrating to go out to a restaurants and see that they’ve spent years compiling their wine list and then their beer list reads like a walk up the aisle at Dan Murphy’s.”
Executive chef at Sydney’s Mekong Tiw Rakarin agrees beer should receive as much attention as wine when drinks lists are designed.
“The amount of quality craft beer produced locally in Sydney is astounding,” he says. “There’s really no reason venues can’t have a beer list that rivals their wines.”
Beer pairing 101
The sheer range of beers available now may be overwhelming at first, but there are a few key rules that venues can follow to maximise its potential when pairing with food.
“I think the increasing number of craft beers and the emergence of quality, local boutique breweries has reinvigorated beer as beverage, allowing for fresh, inventive pairings,” says Rakarin.
When designing the pairings for Mekong’s Craft Beer and Curry series, which has seen the South-East Asian venue team up with Sydney Breweries to match their brews with Indochine curries, Rakarin is focused on using beer to soften the curries’ spice.
“Beer pairs particularly well with curry as the bitterness receptors in the palate are activated by the bitterness in the beer, adding mouthfeel and cleansing the palate in between mouthfuls,” says Rakarin.
“The hoppier the beer, the better it pairs with curry as the bitterness of the hops cancels out the spice of the curry.”
Cutting through is just one of ‘the three c’s’ that Crooks and his team at The Grain Store use to create matches.
“Beer and food pairing is about complementing, contrasting and cutting through,” says Crooks.
“For complementing, an obvious one is a chocolate dessert with a nice chocolate stout: they’re similar flavours that work together. People can often work these ones out for themselves, so we try to focus on contrasting and cutting through.”
Stomping Ground Brewing Co. has a similar system in place.
“When complementing, you can use similar flavours to accentuate one side of the pairing or you can use them to cancel one side out,” says Marinich. “You could pair a smoky beer with double-smoked pork ribs to cancel out some of the smokiness on either side of the pairing.
“Contrasting is probably one of the most exciting options. You can use opposing flavours to highlight a pleasant flavour on either side of the pairing like the classic pairing of Belgian-style mussels served with a Gueuze, which is an extremely sour and acidic Belgian-style beer. It makes the Gueuze richer and sweeter.
“You can cut through as well. So you could use the bitterness of an IPA to cut through the fattiness of pork belly or carbonara. Or you could use a beer with a malt-driven sweetness to counter the heat of chilli.”
This last ‘c’ is Crooks’ favourite. “Cutting through is the one I think can really make people understand the potential of beer and food pairing.”
Stoking the fire
When it comes to encouraging diners to give beer and food matching a go, degustation dinners and events provide an opportunity to drum up interest. Both The Grain Store and Stomping Ground Brewing Co. have run events similar to Mekong’s Craft Beer and Curry series.
In August, Stomping Ground Brewing Co. teamed up with Me & Mabel catering to host the Ground Me Vegetarian Beer Degustation.
“It’s very interesting to pair vegetables and beer because you have a lot of earthy, juicy characteristics that come through in different fruits and vegetables,” says Marinich.
The team generally works food first then beer, even when it comes to events like the vegetarian degustation, when they don’t know exactly what’s coming until the day.
“We’re lucky enough to have more than 20 beers on tap, ranging from four to 10 percent ABV and in a number of different styles.
“We also have five certified cicerones [beer sommeliers] on staff who formulate different pairings and tastings. This is probably the seventh or eighth event we’ve used to really engage with the pairings deliberately.”
The best thing about degustations, says Marinich, is that you can alternate between each of the three c’s, which makes it easy to convey knowledge to diners.
Crooks also likes to use degustations to help transfer information to diners because it can be hard to explain the concepts properly during a normal busy service.
“We do monthly degustations, so we can really set up the pairings then,” says Crooks.
The process is flipped at The Grain Store, though, with Crooks saying the team prefers to decide on beers and then choose food.
“If we can understand the beers, we can really work on designing the menu around those three c’s.”
Rakarin also allows the beers to dictate the pairings.
“I worked with the brewers themselves and the product, sampling the distinct notes in the beers and allowing their individual nuances to dictate the flavours of the food pairings,” he says.
This process lead to pairing a Freshwater pale ale with sour notes with a Cambodian sour pork curry, which Rakarin says is a great example of successful complementing.
It’s not just diners who need exposure to all that beer and food pairing can offer.
“It’s getting chefs and venue operators on board. Mid-level venues are doing a great job highlighting regional wineries — we’re on track to reach 500 breweries in Australia this year, so it’d be great to see restaurants supporting their local brewers, too,” says Crooks.
“I think we’ll get there, but we’re still a fair way off.”
With venues like The Grain Store, Stomping Ground Brewing Co. and Mekong leading the way, hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.
Image: Emily Jane Photograhper